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The Bush Doctrine's Vietnam Paradox

By Nat Parry
April 12, 2004

Sometimes it seems that Operation Iraqi Freedom won’t end until the last Iraqi not on the U.S. payroll is in jail, dead or terrified into submission, like a Bush Doctrine version of the Vietnam paradox about destroying the village to save it. Like the fate of that Vietcong-held village, George W. Bush’s imposition of “freedom” on Iraq by crushing all challengers is taking on the look of madness or megalomania.

That may help explain why large majorities of Europeans are so worried. For centuries, Europe has had unpleasant experiences with leaders who put themselves above rules and rational argument. In Bush, Europeans see an ideological zeal and a personal hubris that brings back some bad historical memories.

Historical experience also could explain why the Europeans keep turning out to be right about Iraq. France and Germany tried to talk Bush out of lunging into Iraq, favoring instead a rigorous U.N. investigation of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Now, Spain’s new leaders appear to have been ahead of the curve in calling for withdrawal of its military forces, recognizing that a drawn-out occupation is only making a bad situation worse.

But Bush and his backers are not about to admit mistakes. Instead, they're calling the Europeans cowards and appeasers, a belligerent attitude that is taking an even worse toll on the longtime U.S.-European alliance. Indeed, Europe's reciprocal disdain for Bush is growing so strong among rank-and-file voters that a second Bush term could open a chasm as wide as the Atlantic.

Early Stages

I witnessed the early stages of this sad transformation when I moved to Denmark to work at a multilateral organization for European security in February 2001, only days after Bush took office. From the start, professional internationalists voiced concerns about Bush’s unilateralism. So too did “average” Danes, whom I met in bars or at social events.

Once they learned I was an American, one of their first hesitant questions was, “So what do you think of your president?” Europeans already were apprehensive over what they saw as a potentially disastrous four years with the world’s most powerful nation headed by an arrogant “cowboy” from Texas.

These concerns deepened when Bush disengaged from the Middle East peace process and rebuffed plans for an international war-crimes court. Bush's withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol on global warming confirmed people's worst fears that Bush wouldn't work cooperatively to address the problems that much of the world saw as pressing threats. In summer 2001, the Bush administration walked out of the U.N.'s International Conference on Racism over disputes about Israel.

The new question I got from Europeans was tinged with outrage or fear: "What is Bush doing?"

But when the planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed. There was an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity. At the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, thousands paid their respects, bringing flowers, candles, personal notes, and even a New York Yankees baseball cap. Similar scenes played out at U.S. embassies around the world. In Kenya, impoverished Africans brought cows to the embassy, to help America in its moment of crisis.

More substantively, governments around the world opened their files and pledged support to bring to justice those responsible for the murders of 9/11. Europeans expressed hope that the disaster would bring about a new era of international cooperation to build a secure, stable, sustainable and just world.

But that was not what followed. I remember the growing dismay at the realization the U.S. was growing more bellicose and unilateral, not less. Bush warned nations that "you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists." He also promulgated the Bush Doctrine of "preemptive war" that would be waged against countries that he deemed as representing a "gathering danger."

While many Europeans backed the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan to attack al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies, criticism grew over the indiscriminate deaths that resulted from use of cluster bombs and giant "Daisy Cutter" bombs. More criticism followed the internment of Afghan prisoners of war at the military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Images of prisoners being humiliated and mistreated through sensory deprivation techniques were broadcast around the world.

The Bush administration refused to abide by the Geneva Convention on treatment of POWs, insisting that the detainees were "unlawful combatants." Though that concept is unrecognized by international law, Bush maintained that the captives didn't deserve the protections of either U.S. or humanitarian law.

Iraq Conflict

When Bush signaled his intentions about Iraq, massive global demonstrations protested the planned invasion. Opinion polls also showed widespread international opposition.

Instead of changing course, the Bush administration belittled anti-war nations as "Old Europe" and disparaged the United Nations as a "chatterbox on the Hudson." Bush's supporters boycotted German and French products and mocked the anti-war Europeans as the "axis of weasels."

In March 2003, brushing aside the U.N. Security Council and advice from many traditional allies, Bush launched his "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad, followed by a ground invasion to oust Saddam Hussein from power and locate the supposed WMD. Many Europeans began seeing Bush as the greater threat to peace and stability than Saddam Hussein.

When I returned to Denmark several weeks ago, one of the most striking developments was the proliferation of anti-Bush and anti-American graffiti. Painted on walls everywhere were messages such as "Stop Bush" and "Fuck USA."

There also was surprisingly intensive coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign. Every night, the news included segments on U.S. political developments and about the presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry. When I asked Danes if this level of attention was normal for the early stages of an American election, they said no, that the interest is far greater now than anything people can remember. Some said the U.S. primaries got more coverage than the Danish national elections.

Since the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Danes also have been debating whether Denmark should withdraw its troops from the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Most Danes whom I spoke with said they opposed the Iraq invasion but favored having Danish troops involved in peacekeeping. But with the escalating violence in Iraq, the calls in the Danish parliament to pull out are growing louder, and people are drawing the connections between Danish involvement and Denmark's vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

A day after the Madrid bombings, Denmark's tabloid-ish daily, Ekstra Bladet, ran a big headline: "Copenhagen Next Time?"  According to a recent poll, 60 percent of Danes think they face a greater risk of a terrorist attack due to their government's participation in Iraq, while 32 percent believe there is no increased risk.

Growing Rift

Bush's war policies also are blamed for the growing rift between the U.S. and Spain. Incoming Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero ran on a platform seeking a more nuanced reaction to Middle East terrorism. He called for strong police work combined with vigorous efforts to address the root causes of the violence and to build international cooperation.

"Fighting terrorism with bombs and Tomahawk missiles is not a way to win, but will instead provoke more extremism," Zapatero said. "Terrorism is fought with the rule of international law, and with intelligence services."

As for the Iraq occupation, Zapatero pledged to withdraw Spanish troops unless they're put under a U.N. command.

Republican leaders and many commentators denounced Zapatero's victory as a sign that Spain had surrendered to terrorism. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., House Majority Leader Tom Delay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Spain's decision to withdraw from Iraq was appeasement that could have long-term consequences like the Munich agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1936.

New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman chastised Spain for bolting the Iraq occupation. Brooks wrote that Zapatero's election was a victory for al-Qaeda. Friedman accused Spain of joining the "axis of appeasement."

But another Times columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof, said Spain was getting a bum rap. From interviews he did with Spaniards, he concluded that "Zapatero's last-minute surge of support had nothing to do with Spaniards knuckling under to al-Qaeda," Kristof wrote. "Rather, Spaniards reacted to Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's dishonesty in blaming Basque terrorists."

Kristof also witnessed a surge in anti-Americanism as Spaniards gather in Madrid to shout "Murderers" at the U.S. embassy. "That kind of anti-Americanism is now widespread around the globe, and it will be one of President Bush's most important legacies," Kristof wrote. [NYT, April 10, 2004]

Zapatero also is not the first national leader to win an election by running against Bush's foreign policy. Both in Germany and in South Korea, governments have been elected after making stands against Bush part of their campaigns.

Whether the Polish, Honduran, Dutch and Norwegian leaders are now discussing troop withdrawal for pragmatic electoral purposes or for other reasons, it is another blow to the Bush administration, which had predicted that other countries would step up to fill the gap being left by the withdrawing Spanish troops. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening.

Reality Gap

While Bush's defenders shrug off this trend as European "appeasement," the situation is far more complex, and more foreboding for U.S. standing in the world. At the center of the rift is a reality gap between how Americans see the world and how the vast majority of the rest of the world sees the world.

The biggest part of this reality gap is that people outside of the U.S. perceive Bush as making the world less safe and they see U.S. self-interest behind the Iraqi occupation. Thus, many people view cooperating with Bush as the real appeasement, enabling Washington to advance a corporate or imperialist agenda.

A major new public opinion poll of nine countries by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that majorities in every country surveyed except the U.S. felt that the Iraq War hurt, rather than helped, the worldwide fight against terrorism. Majorities in all but the United States and Great Britain believed that the primary motivation for the invasion of Iraq is to "control Mideast oil." In the seven countries that were surveyed that did not take part in the Iraq war, disapproval of the war hovered at around 85 percent.

Large majorities of each country surveyed besides the United States said that Washington pays little or no attention to their countries' interests. At least two-thirds in each of those countries with the exception of Britain expressed a desire for the European Union to become as strong as the United States, as a means to check American power. Furthermore, In France, Germany and all of the Muslim countries surveyed, majorities did not believe that the U.S. "war on terrorism" is primarily motivated by a desire to end terrorism.

Another recent poll by the BBC found that most of its viewers consider the United States and globalization to be the biggest threats facing the planet, ahead of war and terrorism.

In the U.S., however, the national news media generally accepts Bush's rationales at face value, presenting his arguments to the American people with little skepticism while virtually banishing critical analysts from the major news outlets. Since the toppling of the Hussein government in April 2003, the U.S. media has generally treated the debate over the invasion as old news while repeating the current conventional wisdom that the U.S. occupation can't be allowed to fail, even if rationalizations such as WMD and the al-Qaeda tie-in turned out to be bogus.

On March 19, one year after he launched the invasion, Bush reinforced those sentiments, saying disagreements over the wisdom of the Iraq War belong in the past and that "all of us can now agree that the fall of the Iraqi dictator has removed a source of violence, aggression, and instability in the Middle East."

But not everyone does agree, especially outside the U.S. While most say Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator, he had been disarmed of chemical and biological weapons through 12 years of sanctions, inspections and bombings. He also didn't have the capability to produce nuclear weapons, nor did he have a relationship with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Hussein's military was fifth-rate and had not threatened his neighbors since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which followed ambiguous guidance from the first Bush administration and U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie.

In short, as unsavory as Hussein was, his regime was not a source of aggression and instability in 2003, while Bush was, his European critics say.

Commenting on the anniversary of the invasion, former chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said the legacy of the Iraq War will include polarized societies in the Middle East, a rift in the NATO alliance, damage to the U.N. Security Council, and no easing in the threat of terrorism. The Iraq War has "not put an end to terrorism in the world," Blix said on March 18. "On the contrary, the result of this iron-fisted approach has been to give it a boost."

Blix also has said that on balance, the Iraqi people were better off before the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently voiced similar concerns at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "Both international terrorism and the war against it have the potential to overturn norms of behavior and human rights standards...while also exacerbating cultural, religious and ethnic dividing lines," he said, adding that the world may be heading toward an international order dictated by the "laws of the jungle." [For details, click here.]

Even CIA chief George Tenet, who supported the invasion and lent his credibility to the intelligence used to justify it, concedes that Bush's approach to the war on terror is not alleviating the threat.

"The steady growth of Osama bin Laden's anti-American sentiment through the wider Sunni extremist movement, and the broad dissemination of al-Qaeda's destructive expertise ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without al-Qaeda in the picture," Tenet testified on Capitol Hill after the bombings in Spain. "As al-Qaeda reels from our blows, other extremist groups within the movement it influenced have become the next wave of terrorist threat. Dozens of such groups exist."

Dubious Allies

Tenet's sober assessment was confirmed shortly afterward in Uzbekistan, a strategic U.S. ally in Central Asia. In the capital Tashkent, a series of bomb blasts on March 29 sparked a week of fighting which killed 47 people. Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadiq Safev was quick to point to "hands of international terror" as responsible for the bombings, claiming that "attempts are being made to split the international anti-terror coalition."

But many Tashkent residents are skeptical of the government's claims, and instead blamed the attacks on the government's ongoing crackdown on individual liberties. As experts have warned for years, in countries such as Uzbekistan, where political expression is severely limited, repression sometimes forces people underground, radicalizes the opposition and leads to acts of terror by people who see no hope for change.

Although Uzbekistan's leader, Islam Karimov, has a human rights record on par with Saddam Hussein's, Karimov has enjoyed substantial U.S. support ever since he agreed to host a military base for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In October 2001, the U.S. and Uzbekistan announced, a "qualitatively new relationship based on long-term commitment to advance security and regional stability." Bush personally singled out Karimov's opponents, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as a U.S. enemy in the global war on terror.

Because of the alliance, the Bush administration looks the other way as Karimov's government carries out systematic persecution of devout Muslims, human rights groups charge. In Uzbekistan – which the State Department classifies as "an authoritarian state with limited civil rights" – wearing a long beard can be enough to get you thrown into prison. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The More Things Change."]

Another source of despair and anger is widespread economic failure. In early 2002, for instance, World Bank President James Wolfensohn argued that to combat terrorism, global poverty and other international problems must be addressed. "We will not create a safer world with bombs or brigades alone," Wolfensohn said. Poverty "can provide a breeding ground for the ideas and actions of those who promote conflict and terror."

European leaders make many of these same arguments today. Partly because of Europe's bloody history, Europeans may have a stronger sense that war should be a last resort, not a first resort.

While no living Americans could remember anything comparable to what happened on Sept. 11, with the possible exception of those who were alive when Pearl Harbor was attacked, many Europeans remember first-hand the widespread devastation of World War II. It is an intimate memory.

European history also includes the Hundred Years War, which engulfed England and France in conflict from 1337 to 1453. That was followed by the Italian Wars, the wars of Louis XIV, and the Thirty Years War. Through the Twentieth Century, Europe has fought and bled over disputes often driven by hubris and irrationality, from the arrogance of kings to the madness of religious bigots.

That history now has become a factor in the divergence with the United States. Europe seems determined to learn from its painful past and search for alternatives to wars, especially when those options haven't been tried. By contrast, the Bush administration appears set to repeat experiences from the Vietnam War, though Bush's supporters bristle at that comparison.

The most troubling repetition today may be Bush's replay of the Vietnam paradox of destroying the village to save it, by acting to "save" Iraq even if that means inflicting street-by-street devastation.

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